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Elizabeth May: The case for democratic debate

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May listens to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper as he speaks during the French language debate in Ottawa on Oct. 1, 2008.

Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

It is hard to believe that there is even a question about participation of the Green Party of Canada in the televised leaders' debate.

We have precedent on our side. We have reason on our side. Against our participation stands an unregulated, ad hoc process that makes decisions without benefit of rules or criteria.

Canadians have come to expect the national leaders debates as part of the democratic process. In 2008, the Canadian public responded with outrage when it became known that the leader of the Green Party was not to be allowed to participate due to threats from two leaders that they would not show up if I was included. In an inspiring demonstration of non-partisan fury, Canadians forced those leaders to back down, and then the television network executives also relented.

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In the midst of the controversy, the former head of the so-called Broadcast Consortium, as the news directors from CBC, CTV, Global, TVA and Radio Canada style themselves when making all the decisions about the leaders' debate, wrote a scathing attack on the process. Tony Burman was former head of CBC news and he urged that Canadians "pull the plug" on the Consortium. He wrote that the process was entirely arbitrary and should be replaced with a commission, as in the U.S., to run debates independent of the journalists who cover the debates. He also disclosed that the threat from Stephen Harper to refuse to participate in the debates had been made in January 2007 and had become the "elephant in the room." Moving an elephant is not easy. But the Canadian public did so.

Canadians were outraged then for many reasons. Those reasons still apply. How can a group of five television executives decide to exclude a party running in 308 ridings when they include a party that can never form government as it runs in only one province? How can debates, a critical part of the democratic process, operate in such a high-handed and arbitrary fashion? How can a party with the support of one in 10 Canadians be excluded? And most fundamentally, how can TV executives tell Canadians that a vote for Green candidates is not a real choice? That is in fact what they are doing. Far from facilitating a full and fair discussion in a democracy, they are interfering in democracy by dictating what choices are worth making.

We were the only party in 2008 to receive more votes than in 2006. We are the only party likely to raise important issues, consistently ignored by others. We are the only party committed to "high road" politics, to rejecting the politics of negativity, the attack ads and the smears.

Canadians are fair minded. Over 70 per cent in poll after poll have argued that the Greens should be included. This is not because 70 per cent of Canadians plan to vote Green, but because Canadians recognize that democracy is healthier when all voices are heard. Canadians know when something is unfair and wrong. This decision will be pilloried by Canadians from coast to coast because it offends our basic sense of decency and fair play.

The last line of my book, Losing Confidence: Power, politics and the crisis in Canadian democracy was "Democracy is not a spectator sport." Democracy is not a sport at all. It is not a game. It is the lifeblood of a healthy society. This decision will not stand. It is anti-democratic and Canadians will make their views on this abundantly clear. Democracy will prevail.

Elizabeth May is Leader of the Green Party of Canada

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